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October 25, 2017

Graham Baba brings its ‘magic touch' with people spaces to bigger projects

Journal Staff Reporter

At 2+U, Graham Baba is collaborating with Pickard Chilton Architects, Swift Co. and retail broker Anne Marie Koehler of JLL on the retail and public space.

Seattle's Graham Baba Architects is well known for renovating old buildings — such as the Kolstrand Building in Ballard, and Melrose Market and Chophouse Row on Capitol Hill.

Both tenants and customers are attracted by the funky charm of these spaces, as well as the shops, bars and restaurants that fill them.

Jim Graham said the projects work because the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. They also provide an antidote to the vanilla spaces big chain outlets tend to occupy.

But now the firm is tackling some much bigger projects downtown, such as the Washington State Convention Center expansion, Skanska USA Commercial Development's 2+U project, and Unico Properties' rehab of the Grand Central Block in Pioneer Square.

Graham and Brett Baba co-own the firm, which was founded in 2006 and now has a staff of 26.

Graham said in some cases GBA is brought in early to design the architectural program for entire projects, such as Unico's. It's also being hired for the holistic approach it uses to design “people spaces” in projects, such as lobbies, retail and exteriors.

On the convention center, GBA is working with architect LMN and landscape architect Gustafson Guthrie Nichol to make the retail and other public space feel authentically Seattle for both conventioneers and locals.



“The convention-goer wants to come to Seattle because it's a cool city, not because it's a cool convention center,” he said. “I think too often the convention centers are designed so that it doesn't matter where you are.”

Developers are finding that both office and residential tenants want buildings with shops, restaurants and public spaces that make people want to mingle. The desire to be part of something draws people to those spaces, and GBA says design is integral to that draw.

The firm has demonstrated this with restaurants, such as Osteria La Spiga, where many elements were reclaimed, and Miller's Guild.

Graham said subtle things like limited demising allows people to move easily in a space. Even the placing of windows and doors helps to draw people in.

“I don't think there's an answer or a formula to it,” he said. “We're doing spaces for people.”

On 2+U, Graham's firm is collaborating with Pickard Chilton Architects, landscape architect Swift Co. and retail broker Anne Marie Koehler of JLL to design 24,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space, and 30,000 square feet of open space that will sit below the office tower.

There will be three low buildings around a covered plaza, and the team is looking at what mix of shops, eateries, bars and events — from pop-up concerts to markets — should be in the space.

“It's experiential,” Graham said, and that's a mantra of sorts for him — one retailers and restaurateurs can ignore at their peril.

Fashioning the 2+U public space is not easy. All the materials for the facades, the building openings, streetscapes, public amenities and art must help to create a village feel that's not repetitive or contrived, said Graham.

GBA designed Pybus Market, the home of Wenatchee's farmer's market, which won the 2014 AIA Washington Council Civil Merit Award. The firm recently completed The Kenmore Hangar, a 5,000-square-foot pavilion and 24,000-square-foot town green in Kenmore, and is working on Madison Public Market in Wisconsin.

It also has done smaller-scale commercial/residential buildings, such as 325 Westlake in South Lake Union, and Building 115 in Fremont. 325 Westlake was named the 2015 NAIOP Redevelopment of the Year and the Fremont building won a commendation from AIA Seattle.

In Yakima, where Brett Baba was raised, GBA designed the Washington Fruit & Produce Co. headquarters, which received numerous awards, and Cowiche Canyon Kitchen + Icehouse. It is working on Yakima Farmers Market and, with GGN, on Yakima Central Plaza.

Jennifer Guthrie, a GGN founding principal, said it's no surprise GBA gets called in early on a variety of projects.

“My impression is they put the experience — the ultimate experience of the person — first, and work very hard to get the function of the building to meet that. Somehow they're able to do both of those. I don't think that's a very easy thing.”

She said GBA creates spaces that are comfortable, interesting and have a level of detail that is very human. “They do just beautiful architecture, but they do it for people.”

On Unico's Pioneer Square project, GBA will design the housing, retail and public spaces. The adaptive reuse project will change three century-old attached buildings — the four-story Grand Central, five-story City Loan and the three-story Buttnick — from office space to apartments, with ground floor retail. Unico said additional floors are being contemplated, but the goal is to add as little height as possible.

A mid-block “Grand Passage” connector, similar to the Grand Central atrium, will be added to the City Loan Building, which will become the hub for all three structures.

Brett Phillips, a director at Unico, said his company worked with GBA on Smith Tower in Seattle, including rehab of the Chinese Room, now called The Observatory. Unico wanted a firm for Grand Central that was connected to the neighborhood. Both Baba and Graham have worked in Pioneer Square for decades, while at Olson Kundig and at GBA.

On Unico’s Pioneer Square project, Graham Baba will design the housing, retail and public spaces.

“They have this magic touch when it comes to old existing and historic buildings,” Phillips said.

There are buildings, such as Melrose Market, that have a charm “that we don't want to bulldoze over,” he said. “Those buildings just need a little bit of care and thought to become something special, and Graham Baba has shown an ability to do so.”

Phillips said the Pioneer Square project's alley will be designed to invite people into the retail. The three buildings face the 16-foot alley, which is adjacent to Occidental Park. Phillips said GBA has created a vision that will activate the alley in a way that blurs the line between the building and the park.

Graham said out of town developers have called, wanting GBA to design people spaces for their buildings. The firm is working on a project for Crescent Heights Inspirational Living in San Francisco, and for developers in Denver and New York.

“I think for us it's a sign that what we're doing is unique and working, but it doesn't mean we want to spread this national,” he said.

Graham said GBA is committed to this region — and to transformational architecture.

“Whether you're doing it or someone else, everyone wins,” he said.


Lynn Porter can be reached by email or by phone at (206) 622-8272.

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